Turning down a million-dollar wound

World War II Veteran James Combs shows off a photo of himself at age 24 Thursday at his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Photo by Bryan Tuck, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge)

By George Morris

For many soldiers in World War II, the best thing that could happen in combat was the “million-dollar wound” — one that didn’t maim for life, but sent them home.

Monroe Combs got his million-dollar wound shortly after D-Day, when artillery shrapnel struck one of his lungs. He was sent to a tent hospital on the Normandy coast.

“This captain said, ‘You got a chest penetration, so you’re home-bound,’” Combs said. “I said, ‘Really? I’m not going home. … I’m going to make that next jump.’ As I recall, I really took him back.”

By not cashing in, Combs would become part of one of the war’s most famous outfits.

Combs, a Lafayette, Louisiana resident since 1964, was a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and he finished the war in Easy Company, made famous by the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” based on Stephen Ambrose’s book that followed the unit from training camp to war’s end.

A machine gunner assigned to Headquarters Company when the 506th trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, in 1942, Combs was transferred to Easy Company during the Battle of the Bulge, and remained there.

A McLean, Texas, native, Combs was known as “Tex” to his comrades. Although he trained in a different unit, he was familiar with the Easy Company commander, Capt. Herbert Sobel, who was hated by his soldiers for his demanding, nitpicking manner. The mood between Sobel and the rest of the company was so toxic that Sobel was transferred out shortly before the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

“He was sorry as dirt,” Combs said. “He ran that company to death, but he ran right with them, so you’ve got to give him credit for that.”

Headquarters Company included machine gun, mortar and communications platoons, whose members were assigned to other companies depending on the needs of each mission. He often fought with Easy Company.

On D-Day, the entire regiment got mixed together, but not by design. Cloud cover in the early morning darkness hid landing zones from pilots, who dispersed paratroopers far from assigned areas. Heavy antiaircraft fire caused pilots to fly much faster than paratroopers trained for.

Combs jumped with a machine gun held in a container sewn onto his jump harness.

“When I got that opening shock, that machine gun just kept going,” he said. “The shock was so severe, it ripped those fasteners out of that container, and the machine gun went on down.”

Combs’ parachute got caught in a tree. He struggled out of his harness, and climbed down until he felt it was safe to jump, landing in water up to his neck.

“If I’d have had that machine gun and hadn’t landed in a tree, I’d have probably drowned,” he said. “The Good Lord had reasons to keep me upright, didn’t he?”

Combs narrowly missed dying moments later in machine gun fire that killed two other soldiers. Later, he found a German machine gun and, lacking one of his own, decided to use it. Hearing someone crawling behind him, he looked back to find another soldier creeping up.

“I said, ‘What in the hell are you doing back there?’” Combs said. “He said, ‘I thought you were German. I was going to throw a grenade on you,’ I threw that gun away.”

Eventually, Combs located an American .30-caliber machine gun and fought for the first 18 days of the invasion until he was wounded. He recovered in England and joined in the invasion of Holland on Sept. 17. When Germany launched the Battle of the Bulge offensive through the Ardennes Forest on Dec. 16, the 101st hustled in to hold on to Bastogne, Belgium, before it was surrounded.

Because the German attack was a surprise, the 101st was poorly prepared. Combs said he and other paratroopers scavenged ammunition from soldiers who were retreating.

“We could hear the Germans and their motors and activity and stuff where they unloaded us,” he said. “It was just as cold as the devil. We didn’t have overshoes. … I learned later there were 15,000 frostbites. We stomped around there and tried to keep our feet warm until morning, and then we tried to set up a defense around Bastogne.”

That defense was successful, and as American forces fought to recapture the ground they had lost, Capt. Ronald Speirs, who had become Easy Company commander, asked that Combs be assigned to the unit, and he fought with the company until Germany’s surrender.

By that time, they had reached Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s famous Eagle’s Nest residence. There, Combs found a German military leather overcoat, which he still has. Easy Company was assigned to occupation duty until being sent home.

“We thought we were going to the Pacific,” he said. “That was before they dropped the atom bomb on Japan. That looked pretty bad. We didn’t want any of that. We’d had all the experience of fun we wanted. I spent almost 300 days on the front line.”

After the war, Combs became a petroleum engineer and worked for Tenneco and Chevron oil until retiring at age 70. His wife, Anne, died in 2009.

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